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  • Nicholas Mellor

Conference on Clean Air for Ukraine

The Conference on Clean Air for Ukraine and the report on “The Environmental Consequences of Russia’s War in Ukraine: Working together for the future recovery of the Ukrainian Environment” highlighted the challenge Ukraine faces as well as the long-term implications for global food security. The conference and report were part of an initiative led by the NGO Arnika (Czech Republic) in cooperation with local civic initiatives in industrial towns of Ukraine with financial support from the Transition Promotion Program of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic and the National Endowment for Democracy (USA).

Published on 21. 3. 2023, the report analyses the environmental damage caused by the Russian invasion during the first nine months of the war, between February and November 2022. It includes historical examples of how the environment has been affected by the wars and damage compensation mechanisms are outlined and reviewed in the report.

Although the analysis includes all the territories that have been damaged, the focus is on the Zaporizhzhia, Dnipropetrovsk, and Kharkiv regions; and addressed questions such as:

· What danger do weapons and military equipment pose for the environment?

· How military actions have affected components of the environment (air, water, soil)?

· What forecasts and conclusions can be made regarding the negative impact of the war on the environment in the medium and long term?

· Have there been any recorded war damages (for damage to the environment), following similar conflagrations in the past?

· Does a framework of international mechanisms exist for reparations/compensation for such environmental damage?

· What challenges are faced for the remediation and restoration of such contaminated sites?

· What are the most important environmental issues to be discussed after the war ends and how are these to be prioritised?

· How to combine the post-war recovery of cities and the economy of Ukraine in compliance with international environmental standards and principles of sustainable development?

The report discussed the impact on agricultural land recognising the far-reaching implications for the country's land and water resources. As a largely agrarian country heavily reliant on agricultural exports, the environmental impacts of the conflict are a serious concern from an environmental, economic and social perspective.

Agricultural land occupies 70.5% of Ukraine's total area, making the agricultural sector one of the most important for the economy, jobs and the environment. The war has significantly damaged these fields where the fighting has occurred, causing long-term chemical and biological contamination of fertile soils. The hundreds of thousands of fired shells, detonated and burned military equipment, and abandoned materials in fields and forests will remain as a source of contamination of soil and groundwater with heavy metals and their compounds for generations to come.

The situation is aggravated by Ukraine's water shortage, with harmful substances leaking into groundwater and surface waters. The fertility of the soil is also affected by the mechanical disruption of the ground surface, explosions destroying vegetation and soil cover, causing the soil profile and the hydrological properties of the soil to be degraded.

Each ammunition explosion is a complex mixture of chemicals that settle in the soil layer, suppressing the growth of vegetation for years or decades, and reducing the population of soil animals and bacteria. As plants easily accumulate heavy metals that contaminate the soil after ammunition explosions, it may not be safe to consume agricultural products grown in the fields that have been affected by combat activities.

The impacts of the conflict are not limited to soil and water resources. Human casualties and abandoned bodies also have an impact on the environment, causing mass accumulation of organic and inorganic waste at the territories seized by the military.

The fuel and energy complex, specifically the oil storage facilities and oil refineries, has also been severely damaged, resulting in massive fires and oil leaks into the environment. Oil pollution has a devastating impact on the environment, changing the number and limiting the species diversity of soil meso- and microfauna and microflora.

The ongoing conflict has caused severe disruption to the hydrological regime of the soil, with irrigation systems destroyed, causing a disruption to the hydration regime of the lands. Large areas have been flooded due to the destruction of hydraulic structures and mines, making the water available in such regions poisonous to plants, farm animals, and people.

Protecting valuable land and water resources is vital, and steps must be taken to prevent further environmental degradation caused by the conflict.

The conference raised more questions about how this could be done. The scale and complexity of the contamination mean that there are no easy solutions.Some of the issues that need further investigation include:

· How to harness 'Citizen Science' in order to scale environmental monitoring programmes?

· What resources do Ukrainian farmers need to contact if they believe their farmland has been contaminated and needs remediation?

· How is geospatial data collected on environmental contamination and how does this link into data on mines and UXO?

Some of the highlights of the conference were the large number of countries and organisations sponsoring or carrying out environmental work in Ukraine and thus the importance of collaboration and coordination. That requires active monitoring of who is doing what and communicating both internally and externally.

The acuteness of the challenge and intensity of environmental monitoring will undoubtedly lead to innovations and advances in the science behind approaches and protocols being used. Effective research and as well as any training programme need to be linked in to what is already going on and be closely coordinated with the Ukrainian military and both regional and national Governments.

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